Stage 6 Reports

Michael Boogerd in his first big win

braves the elements to land first big race win Dutchman Michael Boogerd braved torrential rain and violent winds to claim Friday's sixth stage of the Tour de France as the race reached the Alps. German Erik Zabel, one second behind Boogerd, won the sprint for second place ahead of Frenchman Laurent Jalabert while Stephane Heulot of France came in with the pack to retain the race leader's yellow jersey.

Inspired by the example of compatriot Jeroen Blijlevens, who won a mass sprint to take Thursday's stage, Boogerd escaped as the riders entered Aix-les-Bains at the end of the day's 129-mile ride from Arc-et-Senans.

The 24-year-old from The Hague, who had never won a major race since turning professional two years ago, crossed the line one second ahead of a group including the main favorites. ``In such conditions, the only option was to take all possible risks,'' he said. ``I had won a team time-trial and a small race previously but this is my first big win. This is the greatest moment of my life.''

Boogerd used one of the last opportunities for him to shine in this year's race. He has said he does not feel at ease in the high climbs such as the Madeleine Pass, the highest peak of Saturday's strenuous stage from Chambery to Les Arcs. ``The conditions were tough but it's often like that back home so I'm used to it,'' said Boogert at the end of a day which ruined the hopes of American Lance Armstrong.

The former world champion was trailing two minutes behind the leading riders some 43 miles into the stage when he got off his bike because he was not feeling well. ``I think I've got bronchitis,'' said Armstrong, who will now concentrate on the road race at the Atlanta Olympics. ``I'm feeling so poor that I would have had abandoned anyway,'' he added.

As Armstrong quit, Dutchman Leon Van Bon and Italians Andrea Ferrigato and Marco Saligari broke away on the narrow, twisting roads of the Jura mountains. The three men, soon joined by Uzbek Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, built a lead of over three minutes but they were caught with 19 miles remaining. The main favorites, starting with five-time winner Miguel Indurain of Spain, bidding a record sixth win, have been fairly anonymous since the race started last Saturday from the Dutch city of Den Bosch. But they will have to be more active in the next few days as they all lost over four minutes on a breakaway group featuring Heulot on Wednesday.

After Saturday's climb to the ski village of Les Arcs, the riders face a demanding uphill time-trial to Val d'Isere Sunday before Monday's stage to the Italian resort of Sestriere, arguably the most difficult of this year's Tour with the awesome Iseran and Galibier mountain passes.

``The man who has the yellow jersey on after Sestriere will probably win the Tour,'' said Frenchman Richard Virenque, who has won the king of the mountains jersey the last two years.

17 Riders Abandon in Shocking Conditions

Bad weather took its toll as 17 riders left the Tour de France on another awful day on Friday. Fourteen, including former world champion Lance Armstrong of the United States, pulled out during the day's 207-km sixth stage from Arc-et-Senans, made particularly tough by heavy downpours and violent winds.

Three others were eliminated for finishing outside the time limit. ``I think I have bronchitis,'' said Armstrong, who has won two Tour stages, one in 1993 and one last year. ``I'm feeling so poor that I would have had abandoned anyway.''

With strenuous climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees still ahead, only 166 riders out of the 198 who started last Saturday from the Dutch city of Den Bosch are still going. The weather predictions for the next few days are not good and Tour doctor Gerard Porte said he feared more would give up. ``Not only there is a risk of seeing riders fall on slippery roads but with all the rain we've had, some face medical problems, especially chest infections and tendinitis,'' he said.

``Most of the favourites are doing all right because they are top athletes but some of the other guys are really tired,'' he added.

The bad weather which has prevailed in the last few days has affected the speed of the riders, who have often finished the stages far behind schedule. ``It's very difficult for the riders because as they finish ever so late, they have little time to recover for the next day,'' said Festina team director Bruno Roussel. ``It's making them nervous.''

In other circumstances race leader Stephane Heulot of France would have been delighted to keep the coveted yellow jersey but like everybody else he looked exhausted after Friday's rain-soaked ride in the Jura moutains. ``The conditions were atrocious,'' he said. ``We're all fed up.''

Indurain ready to show on the climbs

Tired of nearly a week of flat rides in the rain, Tour de France favourites, including Spaniard Miguel Indurain, are warming up for strenuous climbs in the Alps, which might decide the eventual winner. The three mountain stages awaiting the riders from Saturday to Monday will mark the start of the real battle for final victory on July 21 in Paris.

``The most important thing in the first week is not to fall and not to lose too much time on the most dangerous riders,'' said Indurain, who managed just that since the race started last Saturday from the Dutch city of Den Bosch. ``After the Alps, we will know who has a chance of winning the race,'' added the Spaniard, bidding a record sixth Tour win.

Swiss Alex Zuelle, Russian Yevgeny Berzin and Frenchman Laurent Jalabert, regarded as the men most likely to deprive Indurain of an expected triumph, know they have three days to upset the five-times winner. Afterwards, even with the Pyrenees still ahead, it might be too late. If they want to take command, the fancied riders must first catch up with race leader Stephane Heulot, one of five men who crossed the line over four minutes ahead of the main favourites at the end of Wednesday's stage.

But Frenchman Heulot did not sound too confident about his chances of keeping the coveted yellow jersey: ``I'd love to but I know it will be tough for me in the Alps,'' he said.

Frenchman Richard Virenque, who won the king of the mountains' jersey the last two years, said he was tired of mass sprints and miserable weather. ``I'm looking forward to the mountains but I'd also like to see the sunshine,'' he said. ``Some riders are sick already and if the rain doesn't stop, it will only get worse.''

As if to give the signal for a new start to the race, two of the world's best sprinters, Italian Mario Cipollini and Czech Jan Svorada, gave up even before the first serious climb. Cipollini, feeling unwell, did not make the start of Thursday's stage and Svorada, suffering from minor injuries sustained in a spectacular crash on Wednesday, got off his bike 106 kilometres into the day's 242-km ride to Besancon.

Saturday's stage from Chambery features two arduous passes, the Madeleine and the Cormet de Roselend, before the final, punishing climb to the ski village of Les Arcs. Sunday's stage, an individual time-trial over 30.5 kilometres from Bourg St Maurice to Val d'Isere, looks the most demanding seen in the race for years. The riders will have no time to pause for breath as Monday's stage to Sestriere in Italy will be arguably the most difficult in this Tour, including the awesome Iseran and Galibier peaks.

The climb to Sestriere will bring back sweet memories to Italian Claudio Chiappucci, who won there before his home fans in 1992 after a memorable solo ride of 223 kilometres.

Briton Chris Boardman, who has never yet climbed the Alps in the Tour, said he was not at his best. ``I'm five percent short and when it comes to the mountains, you have to be at 110 percent,'' he said.

Tony Rominger, who feels at ease with high climbs, said he feared Indurain would use the Alps to take control of the race. ``When there are several mountain passes in one stage, he's the only one to look as fresh in the last than he did in the first,'' said the veteran Swiss. ``He's clearly the favourite.''

Armstrong quits in deluge!

Laurent Jalabert (Once) moved up five places in the overall standings, past Miguel Indurain, today as the Rabobankís Leon Van Bon and Michael Boogerd provided all the excitement in torrential rains and strong wind.

This harsh weather has started to take its toll on the riders. Former world champion Lance Armstrong quit 70 kilometers into the stage, apparently because of back pains and a sore throat. Five other riders withdrew, including yesterdayís winner, Cyril Saugrain (Aubervillers), and Eddy Seigneur (Gan). Three others were eliminated.

MichaÎl Boogerd won his first stage when he broke away two kilometers before the finish line and resisted Erik Zabel (Telekom) and Laurent Jalabert in the final sprint.

Van Bon was the bravest today, taking the best climber jersey away from fellow countryman Danny Nelissen with a 106-km breakaway. He went clear with Marco Saligari (MG Technogym), then Andrea Ferrigato (Roslotto) and Djamolidin Abdoujaparov (Refin). He built a 5í25"-gap but was rejoined with 38 kilometers left in the stage, after having won the stageís last climb, the CÙte de Senoy.

The Gan teamís Stephane Heulot and Frederic Moncassin kept the yellow and green (best sprinter) jerseys by staying in the lead group.

Van Bon and his fellow escapees were rejoined thanks to the Once teamís hard work in the pack. In a show of force, they took advantage of the difficulties of some of the Banesto riders. Four of them were lagging behind, and the rest couldnít prevent Jalabert from winning the last bonus sprint in Rumilly, with 24 kilometers left. Jalabertís teammates kept on the good work and enabled him to place third in the sprint finish.